The Real Thing, Bath Theatre Royal

CAN it really be 34 years since I saw Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees in this play?
My old programme assures me that it was, at the Strand Theatre. I remember there being four characters in it, and it mainly about two couples and their relationships, including some clever trickery with a play within a play. It turns out there are also a few minor characters, and the clever trickery happens in the very first scene, which turns out to be a play, and not real at all.
A small scale tour of The Real Thing is at Bath for a couple of weeks, featuring Laurence Fox, best known for Lewis on ITV, which I don’t watch, son of James Fox, and whose only stage performance I have seen was at Southwark Playhouse in Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a play that coincidentally features in tonight’s offering, when he played a mildly psychotic husband very well. In this production he is the big draw, with his topless torso on posters around the city and the cover of the latest Bath Theatre Royal brochure, but, as usual with these “names” it is his supporting ensemble that makes this well-crafted play come to life.
Fox does a good job with his character, convincing us that he is playwright Henry, a role now acknowledged as semi-autobiographical, and even though he mumbles a little at times, so that we miss some of Stoppard’s clever words, we do get most of it, and we feel his angst later on as he is forced to hack-writing to bring in money. He needs this to pay alimony to his wife Charlotte, played with integrity by Rebecca Johnson, who has left him for an architect. Henry is having an affair with Annie, the wife of Charlotte’s co-star in Henry’s play, Adam Jackson-Smith’s steely Max. The early play within a play mirrors real life, as The Real Thing mirrored Stoppard’s life at the time it was written, all of which adds to the confusion as couples move on, the action switches from real life to performances in plays, and by Act Two Henry is married to Annie, now his new muse. Henry is writing for television, and is asked by Annie to ghost-write a play by a soldier with a cause she supports, all of which means that his play about Annie herself cannot be finished.
As Henry and Annie’s relationship falters in the second act we also meet Henry and Charlotte’s daughter, Debbie, played by Venice Van Someren, younger actor Billy, played by Kit Young, another love interest for Annie, and Santino Smith as the soldier Brodie, who commited his protest of setting fire to a wreath at the Cenotaph to impress Annie. These three smaller roles inject some well-need energy as well as developing the plot, and all are played with detail and accuracy.

Flora Spencer-Longhurst is wonderful as Annie, with an intimate connection to all of the men in the play, each of which is a previous, present or prospective partner, whether on stage or off. She is able to switch emotions and even change physically with her interactions with each of them, and her performance is a masterclass in effortless and completely believable acting.

 This is a chance to see a modern classic, one of Stoppard’s best, performed well, by a strong ensemble, with Fox very much a part of this ensemble rather than being above or apart from them in any way, and a great choice of period music covering slick changes of scene. Catch it if you can, at Bath until 30 September and then on a short tour.
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